Over the past many months, Blizzard has been going through the painstaking process of redoing old World of Warcraft avatars, using graphical overhauls to help them get with the times. Some players, however, aren't happy that their characters of 10 years don't look like themselves. I asked Blizzard what they plan to do about that.
I remember the day WoW's new character models first went live on non-beta servers. I immediately got a text message from a good friend. She expressed sentiments that a lot of players did at the time (and still do): bewilderment, displeasure, heavy heartedness at the idea that somebody had sliced up elements of her online identity without consulting her.
For some, it was akin to botched plastic surgery. You look in the mirror for the first time, and what you see staring back is categorically not you. Not in the little ways, the ones that count. A glitch that altered some characters' skin tones didn't help.
"I considered my undead girl mysterious, regal, grotesque," my friend told me. "Now to me she looks tortured and angry. Previously regal night elves now 'prance' and people are upset."
"This is something very personal to us," she added. "Gameplay aside, a lot of MMOs rely on this emotional, personal connection [to characters]. How do you recreate something emotionally with people?"
She isn't alone. Even now, nearly a month after the fact, players are still debating over the new, graphically superior character models and speculating over changes to come.
Others are proposing their own alterations to races like Blood Elves, who still haven't received an update, in hopes that Blizzard will keep their characters' personalities intact.
On the upside, Blizzard has included the option to toggle off new character models, but you can only do it on an account-wide basis. It's not a selective thing. Beyond that, players can pay a small in-game gold fee to swap out things like hairstyle and facial expression.
What about those who want updated graphics and their characters' shining slivers of imagined personality intact, though? Well, the short answer is, Blizzard's working on it. And make no mistake: they anticipated this issue, even if they didn't end up entirely prepared for it.
"We were mindful of this from the outset as the single greatest risk and challenge in approaching the whole project," lead game designer Ion Hazzikostas told me during an interview at BlizzCon. "It's not just about adding resolution and fidelity. There is a certain personality to these characters. We were adding detail where detail didn't exist before. It's not about faithfully one-to-one reproducing something. Old faces were pretty much textures painted onto a flat surface. Now you have a genuine modelled face with cheek bones and lips that are rigged and animated. You can't just paint it on again. You have to reconstruct and add depth that wasn't there."
Blizzard tweaked and changed faces and animations a lot as people tried on their new virtual masks in beta testing, but the scale of the reactions to the update on live servers was unprecedented, according to Hazzikostas.
"Now millions of people have access to them instead of just thousands," he said. "There's a new wave of concerns. We're listening and paying attention. We don't view the current updated models as 100 per cent done or set in stone. We want to keep tweaking some things that are more universally considered to be awkward."
In the long-term, Blizzard plans to add more and more options for facial expressions, hair, and things of the like in hopes that eventually everyone will be able to recapture their old character's painfully curled lip or immaculately flared nostrils just so.
"The challenge there is, as always, something that one person loves, someone else loves," Hazzikostas explained. "So we can't just say, 'OK, we fixed it. Now that expression looks happier,' because then someone else will say, 'Well I didn't want it to be happy. I wanted to be surly.' So I think we're gonna go down the road of offering new options."
There have been some bumps in the road, but Hazzikostas contends that giving character models the nip/tuck treatment was still the correct thing to do in the grand scheme of things. "Ultimately," he said, "it was a band-aid we had to rip off, and I think the game as a whole is better for it. We will do everything we can to make sure people who have been playing for ten years still have that connection to their character."
I suppose only time will tell if he's right. And in the meantime, well, I checked in with my friend again today. She's cool with the new animations now, but the faces, in her eyes, are still all wrong. So I guess by that metric Blizzard is at least on the right track, even if they still have a long road ahead of them.